Free Slaves

Moshe Ben-Chaim

As is true regarding all of God's mitzvahs, the objective in the physical, obligatory components of Passover laws are only realized through our intellectual grasp and appreciation of the mitzvah's underlying lessons. With that said, let us address a few questions...


Why did God cause the Jews to leave Egypt, in haste? (Exod. 12:39) Maimonides commences his Haggadah with the words "Bebehilu yatzuanu mimitzrayim", "With haste did we leave Egypt". His additional words are significant: For it was this very haste that retarded the dough from rising, resulting in matzah (not chametz) once the Jews camped and baked that loaf. Why then did God wish the dough not to become chametz? We also wonder what ideas demand the commands to drink four cups of wine, and to lean during our feast?

Maimonides is known as the master, halachik formulator. Each word he wrote contributes to the full understanding of his intent. Not a word is superfluous or out of place. Therefore, if he groups certain laws in one section, he does so not based on convenience, but based on purpose. Here is an example: in his laws of Leaven and Matzah 7:6, he explains the obligation that we each must act as if we exited Egypt. This is derived from Deuteronomy 24:18, "And you shall remember that you were slaves in Egypt..."  Law 7:7 states, "Therefore when one feasts on this night, he must eat and drink in a manner of leaning, as a free person." But then Maimonides immediately adds in that law, the requirement to drink four cups of wine. One might think this law to be out of place, perhaps better grouped with the other laws of 'eating', i.e., matzah and maror. How does the inclusion of drinking four cups express freedom, as does leaning?  This question is strengthened, as we must also lean when eating matzah, yet Maimonides does not include matzah in Law 7:7. So why include the four cups?

Furthermore, at times we are required to drink a mere cheekful, but to fulfill the four cups, we are required to drink the majority of each cup. What is derived from this law?

The Four Cups

As stated in the Jerusalem Talmud and by Rashbam, the four cups correlate to the "four terms of redemption" stated by God in Exodus 6:6 and 6:7: 

"Therefore, tell the Children of Israel, I am God, and I will take you out (1) from under the oppression of Egypt, and I will rescue you (2) from their labor, and I will redeem you (3) with an outstretched arm and with great judgments. And I will take you to Me (4) as a nation and I will be to you a God and you will know that I am your God who took you out from the oppression of Egypt."

These two verses deserve analysis. 

Prior to the plagues' onslaught, God tells us that He will remove us from our servitude, but He uses four terms. "I will take you out from under the oppression of Egypt" – referring to the removal of our psychological stress. "I will rescue you from their labor" – referring to the end of physical toil. So these first two terms address Gods removal of our 'negative' status. Next, God describes how He will continue, and bring us into a 'positive' state: "I will redeem you with an outstretched arm and with great judgments" –  referring to reinstating us to a life where we reject Egypt's deities and follow God alone. Meaning, His "outstretched arm" is a reference to God's unimpeded power – He stretches His arm (power) and none can oppose Him. This teaches of His unique role as Creator, as all is under His control. Our recognition of God as the only power is the objective. All of Egypt's deities will be exposed as powerless lies. God uses this term "judgment" again when referring to the destruction of idols. (See Rashi, Exod. 12:12) Finally, God says "And I will take you to Me as a nation" so that we are unique from other peoples. This purpose is so the nations might learn about God, through us. If we were not distinct, the world would not know where to turn to learn of God. But through our unparalleled successes when we follow God, and our horrific tragedies when we sin, we bear the truth of God and His Torah promises and threats. 

It is notable that the fourth term "And I will take you to Me as a nation" relating God's will that the Jews are a beacon to others, is not placed in the same verse as the first three terms. This is because our role as a beacon addresses a 'national' phenomenon, while the first three terms address our benefits as 'individuals'. 

Corresponding to each of these four terms, we drink cup of wine, as a toast of sorts. Wine is used to underscore something of great distinction. 

Free Slaves

What emerges from this is the following: we were not freed for freedom's sake. If that were so, we would have the first two terms alone: God's removal of our psychological and physical suffering. But God also said the next two terms, teaching that His act of redemption has a higher purpose: "and I will be to you a God and you will know that I am your God who took you out from the oppression of Egypt".  God's objective is not that men and women be free, but that we attain the best lives we can through following God's commands. We were freed so we could be slaves to God. But not a slave in a negative light. A slave whose actions and rewards benefit him, is living the best life. Similarly, one who is a slave to his medication to maintain his health, is not a slave in a negative sense.  We may now answer our other questions.

God hastened our exodus to prevent the Jews from expressing and enjoying a false idea. The Torah teaches that when the Jews left Egypt, they took no food. (Exod. 12:39)  Rashi (ibid) explains the Jews did not do so, as they trusted God would provide food. However, this very same verse says the Jews baked the loaf! So did they, or did they not trust God? And why did the Jews as a whole have dough ready at that moment? Why did God rush out the Jews?

"And the Children of israel traveled from Raamses [Egypt] to Succot, about 600,000 men aside from children. And also a mixed multitude ascended with them; sheep, cattle and flock of great numbers. And they baked the loaf which they took from Egypt into matzah cakes, for it did not leaven, for they were ousted from Egypt and had no time to tarry and they also did not prepare provisions."

I do not feel the Jews took that loaf from Egypt for the purpose of consumption alone. This is Rashi’s point. The Jews took the loaf because of what it represented: ‘freedom’. 

The Jewish slaves were fed matzah by the Egyptians for the duration of their bondage. they were free. They cherished this freedom and longed to embody it in expression. Making bread – instead of dry poor man’s matzah – was this expression of freedom. They now wished to be like their previous taskmasters: ‘bread eaters’. A free people! Baking and eating bread was the second most overt distinction of master over slave in Egypt, than was freedom over servitude. The Jews wished to shed their identity as slaves and relish the sensation of a free people. Baking and eating bread would achieve this. To further prove that the Jews valued such identification with the free Egyptians, Rashi comments that when the Jews despoiled the Egyptians of their silver, gold and clothing, at Moses command, they valued the Egyptian clothing over the silver and gold. (Exodus 12:35) Meaning, 'self-image' was valued over all else. The Jews desired this self-image.

However, the Jews had the wrong idea. God never willed their newfound freedom to be unrestricted. They were freed, but for a new purpose; following God. Had they been allowed to indulge unrestrained freedom, expressed by eating leavened bread...this would corrupt God’s plan that they serve Him. 

Complete freedom, and servitude to God, are mutually exclusive. God therefore did not allow the dough to rise. They saw all the miracles – they trusted God. They needed no food for their journey, as God would provide. But they took the dough in hopes of making that "free man’s food", leavened bread. The cakes of dough were not taken for subsistence alone, but to symbolize their freedom. They hoped, upon reaching their destination, to bake bread, expressing their own idea of freedom so they might identify with the Egyptians. But the verse says the dough only became matzah, not their intended end-product. Matzah was a mere result of a hurried exodus. Matzah was so significant, that the Torah recorded this event of their failed bread-making. They planned to bake bread, but it ended up matzah. The Torah teaches that matzah was not the Jews’ plan. It points out through inference that they desired leavened bread. It also teaches that bread was not desired so much for subsistence, as the verse ends, (Exod. 12:39) "and provisions they made not for themselves." They did not prepare food, as they relied on God for that. This is Rashi’s point. The dough they took was not for provisions alone; it was to express unrestricted freedom. This unrestricted freedom is a direct contradiction to God’s plan that they serve Him.

The Jews were now excited at the prospect of complete freedom. God’s plan could not tolerate the Jews’ wish. God desired the Jews to go from Egyptian servitude, to another servitude: adherence to God. He did not wish the Jews to experience or express unrestricted freedom, as the Jews wished. To facilitate this, God retarded the dough from leavening. The matzah they baked at Succot was not an accident, but God’s purposeful plan, that any expression of unrestricted freedom be thwarted. Matzah now relates this very lesson, that a restricted freedom is God's plan for mankind. We were freed so we might obey the Torah, for our benefit.

This also explains Maimonides' formulation. When describing the obligation to lean as an expression of freedom, we must temper that freedom with the recognition that we were freed, to follow God. Therefore, in the law concerning leaning, Maimonides includes the law of drinking four cups, which in essence praises God for the exodus. The exodus was so we might be free, to serve Him. So we are taught in one law that we must lean – expressing freedom; and drink four cups – tempering that freedom with subjugation to God. Had Maimonides recorded the law of leaning as a separate law without including the law to drink the four cups, one might conclude that leaning, or freedom, is an ends in itself. Thus, Maimonides' inclusion of the law to drink four cups as praise to God, inhibits our expression of freedom as an ends in itself.

What is freedom – chayrus? This is defined as unrestricted activity. Thus, one must lean and not be compelled to present one's self as dignified, as if to answer to others. One must drink, and not just average wine, but what he or she enjoys. And one must not drink a cheekful, but a majority of the cup. All of these acts display freedom, and demonstrate our conviction that had God not freed the Jews, we too would yet be slaves to humans. Simultaneously we subjugate ourselves to God, as was the purpose of our release from bondage.

From the Torah's four terms, to Maimonides formulations, we witness a system of law so profound. Each mitzvah has not the act as the goal, but we are to uncover the beauty of the Torah's brilliance. An appreciation of the sensibilities, the intricate design and harmony of all laws with human perfection must permeate any person with a great appreciation for God. We must be thankful to God for having created each one of us.